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18. November 2011

Radio astronomy in Africa: Exciting opportunities for Germany

Berlin, 17 November 2011. Exciting opportunities afforded by radio astronomy for scientific, industrial and development cooperation between Germany and Africa were presented at a special presentation at the South African Embassy in Berlin on Thursday 17 November 2011, by the Director of South Africa’s SKA Project Office, Dr Bernie Fanaroff.   South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Mr Derek Hanekom, introduced the event.   

Southern Africa has the potential to become one of the world’s major centres for radio astronomy over the next decade.  South Africa and several African partner countries are making important investments in radio astronomy infrastructures and related human capital development programmes, which have attracted great interest from the international community.  There is rich potential for mutually beneficial cooperation in this regard between Africa and Europe, not only to advance global scientific partnerships and harness technological innovation for industrial competitiveness but also to make a decisive contribution to Africa’s development.

Southern Africa is already the home of major telescopes, including the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in South Africa and the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) gamma ray telescope in Namibia.  South Africa is now building one of the world’s largest radio telescopes, the MeerKAT (http://www.ska.ac.za), in its arid Northern Cape Province, and has assembled a talented team of young African engineers, which has achieved all of the milestones in the construction of the telescope ahead of schedule.
MeerKAT is one of the precursors for the global Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope project.   The international radio astronomy community has shown considerable interest in the project, both with regard to collaboration during the development of the MeerKAT and in applying to observe with it.  The first five years of observation with MeerKAT have already been allocated to ten major international observing programmes, involving several European and German radio astronomers (specifically 24 German radio astronomers from 8 different institutions.)
South Africa and partners in Africa are also planning to build an array of radio telescopes throughout Africa, by reconfiguring and linking for radio astronomy, redundant satellite communication dishes across the continent.  This network will in turn be linked to telescopes in Europe and other continents.  Work in this regard has for example already started in Ghana.  The network will be known as the Africa VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) Network.  

South Africa’s investments in radio astronomy aim to leverage Southern Africa’s comparative advantages that make it an ideal location for astronomy.  The region’s geographical position provides wide coverage of the astronomy rich southern skies and is an optimal location to study our own Milky Way galaxy.   South Africa’s Karoo semi-dessert has very low population density and very low levels of radio frequency interference (critical for radio astronomy) as well as very little light pollution.    At the same time, the Karoo has good basic infrastructure of roads, electrical grid power and optical fiber communication networks.  
The site established for the MeerKAT telescope is at a high altitude, is very dry and has amongst the world’s lowest cloud cover and highest solar radiation.  There is not cyclonic weather and the troposphere and ionosphere are stable.  These factors make it ideal for radio astronomy.  South Africa also has excellent academic and industrial infrastructure to support science and technology partnerships of this magnitude.  

Besides building the MeerKAT telescope, South Africa, together with eight other African countries, has been shortlisted (along with a joint bid by Australia and New Zealand) as a possible site for the largest and most powerful radio telescope ever built, the Square Kilometer Array.  The SKA will be built by an international consortium of countries and is expected to be operational by 2025.  In addition to producing ground breaking science, the SKA will drive innovation in ICT, wireless communication, sensor technology, renewable energy and other technologies.  Africa’s bid to host the SKA has been endorsed by the Heads of State of the African Union.  

The design and construction of the MeerKAT is already addressing many of the huge challenges which will be faced by the SKA in such fields as ultrafast computing, ultrafast data transport, image processing, digital signal processing, control and monitoring of huge sensor networks and radio engineering.  In this regard, the SKA South Africa team has created vibrant partnerships with South African industries and universities and many of the world’s leading research institutions and universities, as well as multinational companies.  

The development of large-scale radio astronomy research infrastructures in Southern Africa can become powerful drivers for socio-economic development.  It is already attracting larger numbers of young people into science and engineering and training a new generation of highly qualified scientists, technicians and professionals.  Iconic projects such as the MeerKAT and the SKA can retain the best young people in Africa and contribute to limiting and reversing the brain drain in science and technology.   Growing Africa’s human resources in science and technology will, thus, enable the continent to play an increasingly important role in the international knowledge economy, thereby supporting global sustainable development.

Recognizing this enormous potential for mutually beneficial cooperation between Europe and Africa, a proposal for a Written Declaration calling on greater support for African-European radio astronomy partnerships, has recently been launched in the European Parliament.   

(For a German translation of this document, please contact berlin.info(at)dirco.gov.za)

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